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Book Review: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Title: The Thirteenth Tale
Author: Dian Setterfield
Genre: Fiction, Mystery, Gothic/Victorian Tale
Pub. Date: September 2006
Personal Rating: 5 of 5

Book lovers, Gothic tale tellers, and romantically inclined women will enjoy reading Diane Setterfield�s New York Times Bestseller, The Thirteenth Tale. Full of poetic prose, gothic mystery, and psychological soul-searching, The Thirteenth Tale will remind readers of Jane Austen in its prose, Charlotte Bronte in its romance, and Arthur Conan Doyle in its mystery.

The tale itself tells the story of a young woman, Margaret Lea, an amateur biographer and bookshop keeper by trade, who is invited, out of the blue, to become the biographer for the most well-known writer of the day, Vida Winter. Vida is a recluse, a person for whom every interview is a chance to tell a story, so much so that no one knows what her real past is, nor even her real name. Now Miss Winter has decided, as she lays dying, that it is now the time for truth. Margaret is drawn to the story of a woman whose books she had never written, and she takes the commission, albeit while feeling inadequate to tell the thirteenth tale.

Vida Winter is the consummate storyteller, and she cannot even relate the story of her own past except in the third person as a tale. The back story has a Victorian feel to it, and the reader is left thinking often of Jane Eyre. In fact, Jane Eyre is repeatedly mentioned in the book, and some important plot points hinge on its existence. Margaret is drawn to the history as it is related, but is unable to ask questions where she sees plot holes because of Miss Winter�s request that she not do so, and it is here that the Doyleian mystery comes in.

The story is a fascinating read. The poetry of Setterfield�s words, especially when describing books, will appeal to any reader who has ever stroked a spine, or reveled in the smell of the pages of a much beloved novel. Setterfield rally hones in on what the reader feels when reading,

�Of course one always hopes for something special when one reads an author one hasn�t read before� I have always been a reader; I have read at every stage of my life, and there has never been a time when reading was not my greatest joy. And yet I cannot pretend that the reading I have done in my adult years matches in its impact on my soul the reading I did as a child. I still believe in stories. I still forget myself when I am in the middle of a good book. Yet it is not the same. Books are, for me, it must be said, the most important thing; what I cannot forget is that there was a time when they were at once more banal and more essential than that. When I was a child, books were everything. And so there is in me, always, a nostalgic yearning for the lost pleasure of books. It is not a yearning that one ever expects to be fulfilled. And during this time, these days when I read all day and half the night, when I sleep under a counterpane strewn with books, when my sleep was black and dreamless and passed in a flash and I woke to read again � the lost joys of reading returned to me��

The Thirteenth Tale is a character driven story, and Setterfield is skilled at bringing out the essence of the characters, giving them dimension and depth.

Much is made of the concept of twins and the connectedness they share, and some readers may find this difficult to understand, as I did. Margaret�s past haunts her a little to much, and the doctor�s prescription for her malady ultimately brought a smile to my face. Nonetheless, Setterfield uses the twin concept well, and the surprise ending to the mystery I only solved one or two chapters before the truth was revealed. Setterfield builds the suspense well, and doesn�t give away the ending before the appropriate moment, although the reader will feel foolish at not having paid closer attention to the beginning.

Fans of Charlotte Bronte�s Jane Eyre will find the same tone and feel in The Thirteenth Tale. Much of the story takes place on the Yorkshire moors, adding to the gothic feel. However, the story does end well for Margaret. I highly recommend this book for any book lover, or fan of Victorian era romances. Some will also find the mystery intriguing enough to continue reading, even if off put by the romantic nature of the tale. I would also recommend this book as an excellent high school reading text to encourage a love of books, except for a bit of sexual material, not graphic and appropriate to the story, but not really suitable for already raging hormones.

Setterfield has earned her place on the Bestseller lists with The Thirteenth Tale, and I think this novel will stay on bookshelves for a good while to come.

“There is one thing on which we are agreed: There are too many books in the world to read in a single lifetime; you have to draw the line somewhere.”

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